Detroit Lions special teams: Crucial questions at returner, kicker and, maybe, long-snapper

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As dismal as the 2020 season was, the Detroit Lions had one of the best all-around special teams units in the NFL last year.

Jack Fox earned second-team All-Pro honors in his first NFL season, and the Lions led the league in blocked kicks (four) and finished third in longtime NFL writer Rick Gosselin's respected special teams rankings.

The Lions changed kickers (Matt Prater) and return men (Jamal Agnew) this offseason, and are under the guidance of a new special teams coordinator (Dave Fipp) for the third time in as many years.

Lions punter Jack Fox warms up before the game against the Saints on Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020, at Ford Field.
Lions punter Jack Fox warms up before the game against the Saints on Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020, at Ford Field.

Fipp said he has focused more on player development than scheme installment in early spring workouts, though rookie minicamp and organized team activities have both had a heavy special teams feel.

With training camp still eight weeks away, here is a look at where things stand for the Lions on special teams:

Fox and hound

A year after he edged Arryn Siposs for the punting job in camp, Fox is safe enough in his spot that the Lions didn't even bother to sign a second punter.

Fox netted 44.8 yards per punt last season, the best mark in franchise history, but Fipp said "there’s a bunch of areas he can improve in" 2021.

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"I’m not going to talk all the particulars about that, but I would say a bunch of situational stuff, when the ball’s getting closer to midfield, maybe, what are we doing in those situations?" he said. "I think for all these punters they’re trying to develop maybe some other punts in their game so that they have some other things that they can do, not just one thing. You’ve seen some guys hit like a spinner kick, stuff like that, so there’s always room for improvement, I think, with all these guys.

"Holding’s another one for him, just getting more comfortable with that whole operation and all that stuff. Last year he was working two snappers, he had one kicker. This year we got two snappers, two kickers, so he’s seeing the ball come back from a couple different people. There’s some different operations."

It's possible that Fox's role as holder contributed to some of Prater's struggles kicking field goals last season, though Prater insisted that wasn't the case. From a pure kicking standpoint, Fox had seven touchbacks on 59 punts. That's not terribly high, but he could stand to be better. (Tress Way, who finished fourth in the NFL in net punting, had three touchbacks on 73 punts.)

Either way, Fox seems like the surest thing on the Lions' special teams.

One more for Muhl?

For years, Don Muhlbach was the Lions' surest thing — at any position, not just on special teams. But he showed signs of slippage in training camp last summer, when serious thought was given to keeping Steve Wirtel, and two months shy of Muhlbach's 40th birthday he's gearing up for a challenge this year from Scott Daly.

Asked about the long snapper job last week, Fipp called it a "competitive situation" but hinted that Muhlbach has the inside track.

"It’s going to be hard to beat out Don," Fipp said. "He’s obviously a great player and Daly’s got his hands full. That being said, just like with everybody, we’re looking at everybody out there, not just the guys on the roster but guys on other rosters. Some teams have two, who else is out there? So this game’s always competitive, no matter who’s on your own roster."

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Point of no return

Agnew had five return touchdowns (four punts) in four seasons with the Lions. His departure, while understandable from a financial standpoint, left a void in the return game.

Kalif Raymond enters the summer as the favorite to win the job after handling both kick and punt returns for the Tennessee Titans in 2020, but Fipp said the Lions are auditioning four other players as return men: Safety D'Angelo Amos and receivers Amon-Ra St. Brown, Victor Bolden and Tom Kennedy.

Tennessee Titans receiver Kalif Raymond before the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Oct. 25, 2020 in Nashville.
Tennessee Titans receiver Kalif Raymond before the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Oct. 25, 2020 in Nashville.

St. Brown had modest success as a part-time return man at USC, but he is guaranteed a roster spot this fall. If he wows in the return game, it's possible he could usurp the duties from Raymond.

Bolden and Kennedy are bubble players who might have to impress as return men to earn jobs, while Amos is an interesting candidate given his return history. He took five punts back for touchdowns in three seasons at James Madison (before transferring to Virginia last year).

"We’re working a lot of those guys right now," Fipp said. "They caught some balls off Jack’s foot (in practice last week), then they’ve been working the JUGS after practice. But at the end of the day, these guys are all just going to get a bunch of reps right now and then as we get closer to training camp we’ll sort out kind of who’s in front of who."

Raymond got $250,000 guaranteed on his one-year contract to sign with the Lions as a free agent. That's probably not enough money to guarantee him a roster spot, but it is enough to make sure he has every chance to win the job.

Kick in the pants

Things didn't go well the last time the Lions made this sort of transition at kicker, when Jason Hanson retired in the spring of 2013. It took more than a year (and a little bit of luck) to find Prater, and the Lions had some pronounced kicking struggles in between.

The Lions took a twofold approach to replace Prater, signing Matthew Wright to a futures contract after the season and adding veteran Randy Bullock in free agency.

Pittsburgh Steelers kicker Matthew Wright (16) kicks a field goal during the third quarter of a preseason game at Nissan Stadium Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019 in Nashville, Tenn.
Pittsburgh Steelers kicker Matthew Wright (16) kicks a field goal during the third quarter of a preseason game at Nissan Stadium Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019 in Nashville, Tenn.

Wright is known for his accuracy — he made all four of his field goals and all seven of his extra points in a brief cameo with the Pittsburgh Steelers last season, though he does not have Prater-like thunder in his leg. Bullock has experience the Lions may value, having spent nine seasons with four different teams.

It's a coin flip who wins this job, and one I don't expect will be decided until the preseason, when Wright and Bullock be kicking in game situations and Fipp will have several months of work to evaluate.

Playing favorites

The Lions re-signed special teams ace Jalen Reeves-Maybin and cornerback Mike Ford, but are in the market for a few new core coverage players.

Head coach Dan Campbell mentioned receiver Jonathan Adams as a special teams standout during rookie minicamp, and Ford, cornerback Corn Elder and receiver Damion Ratley stood out in drills at the Lions' first open OTA practice last week.

With no pads and no live action this time of year, though, no one is in a rush to make any judgments about roster spots.

"Like I told the guys actually today, don’t worry about the depth chart," Fipp said last week. "That don’t mean anything right now. That’s all going to come out in the fall, preseason games, training camp, when the game gets more real and competitive, the pads go on and all that stuff. So right now is really just, for me it’s actually one of my favorite times of the year because you’re not worried about the outcome and all that and you have time to invest in players. So right now it’s just about trying to make guys as good as we can get them so that they’ve got a chance to be competitive in the fall."

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Lions special teams coordinator sizes up key position battles